Trend watching (the meta-trend)

Meteor_shower_19thcentury_engraving Let’s hope that the new book on trends is itself a trend. 

Mark Penn and Kinney Zalesne have written a book called Microtrends which encourages us to stop waiting for big trends and go looking for little ones. 

This represents a new model of trend watching, one that acknowledges how decentered, multiple and various our culture and commerce are.

As Penn says, cultural innovation can come up fast.

By the time a trend hits 1 percent, it is ready to spawn a hit movie, best-selling book, or new political movement. 

We are now less like cool hunters, trying to figure out the NEXT NEW THING and more like Silicon Valley venture capitalists decide how to choose between thousands upon thousands of start ups. 

Naturally, this makes models more difficult.  It was one thing when all we needed was a kind of NORAD or a SETI capable of spotting the next NEW as it reached us from afar.  But what we are looking at now is a trend world in which the new comes, like meteors, in "showers." 

As a matter of fact, we weren’t all that good at trend watching when it was a matter of picking up single trends.  How are we going to manage now that we are being inundated with change?  How will we manage when confronted with great clouds of trends.  When are we going to cultivate the pattern recognition that this requires. 

I think the book by Penn and Zalesne is a good sign.  It helps us identify the true object of the trend hunter’s inquiry and the real intellectual challenge we are up against. 

What I think it’s missing is some feeling for the cultural tectonics at work in the world.  Penn and Zalesne note the following microtrends:

1) Americans over 65 who continue to work (there are 5 million of these),
2) older women dating younger men (there are 3 million of these so called "cougars"),
3) the rise of well educated nannies
4) children who are home schooled (1.1 million, up 30 % in the period 1999 – 2003)

Taken on their face, this looks like a blooming confusion of developments.  But, from an anthropological point of view, there are a few cultural ideas that help explain where these changes come from.  American ideas of age, gender, education, occupation, individuality, the family, the state, all of these are being reformed and this reformation throws off lots of "surface" changes. 

I don’t see enough in Penn and Zalesne that encourages us to seek this higher ground.  As it stands, Microtrends is going to frighten the children and it may even stampede the horses.  It opens Pandora’s box and shows us the scale of the problem without showing how the problem can be made more tractable.  This is the trend within the trend, and it’s a bad one.  We have quite enough "sky is falling" rhetoric as it is. 


Carew, Sinead.  2007.  Small, offbeat trends can change the world.  September 8, 2007.

Penn, Mark and Kinney Zalesne.  2007.  Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow’s Big Changes.  New York: Twelve. 


A hat tip for PSFK for letting me know about Microtrends.


Thanks for your patience this summer.  I used August to work on the manuscript and now have around 25,000 words and a concept to show for my misery.  I think I have discovered a new aspect of contemporary culture, one of the "producing stations" of our world, one of those tectonics that create our surface culture, but I could be completely wrong about this.  It will be awhile before I know.  Thanks again for your patience.

5 thoughts on “Trend watching (the meta-trend)

  1. Tom Guarriello

    Good to have you back, Grant. I, for one, have great confidence that what you found this summer will be terrifically meaningful. Eager to find out about it.

    I share your concern about the absence of “higher ground,” higher order reflection on the deeper meaning of microtrends. Grand unified theories are illusive and I’m not advocating a search for a Grail. But somewhere between individual data points and single-symbol meaning-systems lies a structural understanding that helps make SOME sense of things; at least, a “rolling sense,” a kind of “theory for now” way of looking at unique moments with context. Otherwise, the booming buzzing confusion of the NOW can only be chronicled and cataloged. Your notion of the “reformation” of fundamental personal identifiers seems a reasonable working model for looking at microtrends. I haven’t read the book so I’m unsure what Penn and Zalesne propose in the way of meaning-development. Sounds like another one to add to the reading list.

  2. Anthodiva

    “3) the rise of well educated nannies
    4) children who are home schooled (1.1 million, up 30 % in the period 1999 – 2003)”

    With the gap between the rich and everyone else widening, the struggles of public schools, the cost of private schools, and the low pay of teachers in both; a motivated, wealthy family might find it a bargain to hire a real-honest-to-God teacher for their two or three kids. Think about it, you could easily pay 60K for say, three private school tuitions, or you could pay a teacher 45K and give them the luxury of a teeny classload. It is very nineteenth century, like when Laurie gets tutored at home in Little Women.

    Plus, mom still goes to work, and if she is paid well enough, it is a bargain. A much better deal than the situation often highlighted by the New York Times of women leaving highly paid jobs to sit at home and take care of the kids.

  3. strangeknight

    Interesting, but I’m wondering if it’s just a question of levels of abstraction. Right now it looks like the distinction between a “macro” trend and a “micro” one relies on the numbers involved, which isn’t a fruitful way of thinking about trends.

    To be honest, trends are a dime a dozen as I’ve encountered in my scenario planning work. Translating them into something that the rest of the organisation takes seriously — now that’s something I want to read!

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